May Day march to Queen's depot in support of the strikers May Day march to Queen's depot in support of the strikers. Photo: Martin Hall

Manchester bus drivers have shown that determined industrial action and community support can defeat fire and rehire, reports Chris Neville

Unite’s Go North West bus drivers at Manchester’s Queen’s Road depot, who had been on strike for more than 80 days, have finally won their battle against fire and rehire.

The drivers can now celebrate with their heads held high. They have shown themselves to be an inspiration to the trade union movement and their struggle proved to be a springboard for activists around Greater Manchester to unite behind. Their victory against fire and rehire is a major boost to workers all over Britain.

The dispute goes back over a year to when the newly-hired MD of the depot, Nigel Featham was brought in to enact changes to the depot which Go North West claimed was losing money and in need of modernisation.

Featham has a history of union-busting. A quick google search will bring up numerous examples of disputes for bus companies under his stewardship and it didn’t take long for him to target Unite’s lead rep at Queen’s Road, Colin Hayden, who was suspended on spurious grounds last year in a clear attempt to weaken the union. Shortly after this, the initial fire and rehire action from the company was initiated.

That incident led to activists mobilising in support of Colin, taking direct action at the depot to block buses leaving in the morning and causing huge disruption to the services. Unite’s leverage team stepped in and Colin was eventually reinstated as Unite entered negotiations with Go North West.

Some months later, Go North West withdrew from their talks and resumed plans to fire and rehire the drivers. Go North West forced through changes that would have seen drivers thousands of pounds a year worse off and hauled them into a room individually, without representation to make them sign new contracts. They were threatened with the worst rotas available if they delayed the process.

The drivers then balloted for strike action and 82% voted in favour of a continuous strike that started in February and lasted until Monday.

Along the way, some of the best community solidarity Manchester has seen in years was initiated in support of the drivers and their cause. Manchester People’s Assembly organised a cavalcade which led to a march and rally from Manchester Trades Council. Greater Manchester Tenant’s Union and Better Buses for Greater Manchester hosted a rally on another day and on May Day, the drivers led the Trades Council’s annual march.

The pandemic made things harder for the drivers. The lack of demand for private passenger transport meant that coach companies from across the region were able to be contracted out by Go North West to cover services at huge cost to the company. But local activists stepped up and blockade the depots of the scab coach operators in solidarity with the striking drivers, sometimes facing very hostile responses and even having vehicles driven at them.

When looking at the sheer amount of resources Go North West ploughed into breaking the strike, the idea that this was about saving costs, rather than weakening trade union strength in the sector falls flat. Fares were slashed on the replacement scab services and a huge amount of money was spent both securing the Queen’s Road depot and hiring a temporary depot in Heywood for Go North West scab drivers to operate out of. Financial decisions that were no doubt sanctioned from the top, costing the parent company a great deal of money.

The finer details of the deal to settle the dispute have not been released yet but the key points in the victory include having Go North West agree to never use fire and rehire again worldwide, winning back almost all sick pay and time allowances and the reinstatement of two sacked workers along with disciplinary charges against others being dropped.

There are questions to be asked around what type of pressure the drivers were under from Unite to end the dispute and how much the union would have supported them had they decided to continue. But Unite should be praised for the resources they allocated, including upping strike pay from £50 to £70 per day. This was rightly seen as a key dispute against fire and rehire by the union.

Some concessions have been made around giving up unpaid breaks and bringing in compulsory overtime if running behind schedule. However, the drivers have shown astounding levels of determination. They are also proudly talking of the unbreakable bonds that have been formed between them during this struggle. This will see them well-positioned for any future negotiations.

After the defeat of the British Gas workers through fire and rehire, Go North West bus drivers have shown that victory is still possible through relentless strike action. As the dust settles from the pandemic, there will no doubt be many further attacks on workers and the Go North West dispute can be looked to for lessons on how to fight back and win.

Chris Neville interviewed Colin Hayden about the victory

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